Tar Heels, Gamecocks share national spotlight
Left tackle James Hurst was a true freshman in 2010 when North Carolina opened the season with a nationally televised showdown against fellow Top 25 team LSU in Atlanta.
The Tigers won that game 30-24, and UNC hasn’t been ranked since. But after three years of suspensions, NCAA sanctions, coaching changes and new schemes on both sides of the ball, Hurst and the Tar Heels again begin their season in the spotlight.
UNC opens the 2013 college football schedule today when it visits No. 6 South Carolina at Williams-Brice Stadium (6 p.m., ESPN).
“I don’t know if a lot of guys on the team realize what an opportunity this is,” Hurst said. “It hits you fast and the game feels like it’s 10 minutes long and everything’s 1,000 miles an hour. On the road, top 10 team, best defense, SEC, all that talk.
“We’re going to have to get the mindset going into that game that this is the biggest game that anyone’s ever played in, and we have to play that way.”
Part of the spotlight will be on Hurst — the preseason All-ACC senior tackle will be matched up against Gamecocks junior defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the most highly acclaimed defensive player in years.
Hurst also will anchor a line that is replacing three NFL draft picks, including No. 7 overall selection Jonathan Cooper, and is starting two freshmen (left guard Caleb Peterson and right tackle Jon Heck). Heck, who didn’t win the starting job until late last week, will go up against one of the top defensive lines in the country.
“Hopefully he’s been preparing himself for that,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said. “We talk about you put yourself mentally into the game — this is a play in the game and not just another rep in practice — and hopefully he’s been doing that.
“And you know what? He’s a redshirt freshman. He’s going to make some mistakes and we’re going to live with it and we’re going to overcome it.”
The Tar Heels return third-year starting quarterback Bryn Renner, who has the best passing efficiency mark in ACC history, and leading receiver Quinshad Davis. They will face a defense that was ranked 11th in yards allowed and 13th in points allowed a year ago but must replace all three starting linebackers.
While UNC’s offense (14th in the country in scoring) was quick to pick up Fedora’s no-huddle, spread attack, the defense faced more of a learning curve as it switched from a pro style to a 4-2-5 formation.
The Tar Heels were in the middle of the pack in points allowed (53rd) and yards allowed (56th) and seemed to get worse as the season went on.
Fedora suggested that the unit lost its confidence, but the team should have fewer mental mistakes and missed assignments in its second year under the new system.
Of course, that theory will be tested in a big way today.
“Typically, you don’t want to roll in there and play a top-five team first game, but it is what it is,” UNC associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning said. “That’s fine. It will give us a great challenge, and we’ll see where we’re at.
“Hopefully, those guys will emerge. They have enough ability physically. Will they make the jump in maturity and (in) play recognition?”
If they do, UNC could wind up with one of the biggest road upsets in program history. The highest-ranked home teams the Tar Heels have beaten are No. 8 Duke in 1937 and No. 8 Michigan in 1966.
UNC lost to its only ranked opponent a year ago, falling at No. 19 Louisville. Fedora knows that a win today will go a long way toward improving the reputation of UNC — and the ACC as a whole.
“If you want national respect, you’ve got to beat ranked opponents,” Fedora said. “So there’s no doubt about it, ... you’ve got to go out and you’ve got to perform.”
NOTES — T.J. Logan is injured and did not make the trip to Stouh Carolina, so fellow true freshman and Hillside High graduate Khris Francis will back up sophomore Romar Morris and senior A.J. Blue at running back. ... South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier is 22-1 and Fedora is 4-1 in season openers in their careers. Both losses were to South Carolina (when Spurrier was at Duke and Fedora was at Southern Miss). ... Fedora said Wednesday that he still planned to play Jack Tabb on both offense and defense. The junior is listed as a backup at tight end and middle linebacker. ... South Carolina’s defensive line is coached by Deke Adams, who led that position group for the Tar Heels in 2012. “He obviously prepared for this offense many times in spring ball,” Fedora said. “They’ve probably picked his brain every which way they can as far as what they can do to attack us, so we’ll see how it happens.”